Becoming “homeless”

Five themes & potential disconnects
Urban Nomads

Gabriele de Seta, 19–08–15, Urban Nomads, Reflection

After two days of roaming around the district, we had collected a bunch of stories about homelessness in Sham Shui Po. For most of us, it was the first time reading what other teams in our group had encountered and written about. It didn’t take too long to read the stories, circulating printed copies around and taking some notes, but it took a lot more time to discuss them and extracting generative themes and potential disconnects. We started by gathering around a table and sharing observations about each story, sticking our thoughts on them with colored post-its.

Coding stories in group. Photo by Loretta Ho. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

We then took all the post-its and re-arranged them on the table trying to put together similar and connected issues. Some themes started emerging quite naturally, while others required some playing around with their scale and scope. Eventually, we had on our hands five clusters of issues, which we assigned to groups of two people according to our interest and expertise, and started working on building a theme out of each of them, supporting them with facts and information collected in our stories.

Designing themes. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

It did take a whole afternoon, but in the end we had five large posters — a general one describing the central theme of our group, and four analytic ones tackling the main themes through which we attempted to rethink homelessness. The five themes we came up with are, in order of presentation:

  • Becoming “Homeless”
  • Social Networking
  • The Political Dynamics of Homelessness
  • Housing and Urban Space
  • Health
Five themes, five posters, countless disconnects. Photos by Loretta Ho. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Through the top-level theme “Becoming ‘Homeless’”, we outlined what we believe to be the central problem about homelessness in Hong Kong: the idea of homelessness itself, and the misconceptions it is often approached with. We suggest that, in order to better solve the many problems linked to homelessness, it is necessary to rethink what the idea of “home” means to people who live on the streets, what “community” represents for different inhabitants of the district, and what “intentions” might be behind the process of becoming homeless. For example, many of the people behind the stories we collected were not technically homeless: they lived in public housing or occasionally went back to their families, but made the choice to be “part-time homeless” under the Tung Chau Street flyover for different reasons that deserve careful analysis.

The first more specific theme we proposed is that of “Social Networking”. We wanted to stress the different forms of sociality we discovered throughout our stories, and identified seven main kinds of social networks: drug selling, neighborhood relationships, refugee communities, ethnic minorities, small-scale social economy, and the occupation of local public space. We found that cultural and linguistic differences act as boundaries between groups of homeless people and often delimit very closed groups; for example, Vietnamese refugees stick together and barely interact with other local homeless people. Other forms of -lessness, such as the lack of a housing address or legal status, also separate groups of homeless from the local society.

“Political Dynamics of ‘Homelessness’” is our second analytical theme. We highlighted the role of visibility in making the issue of “homelessness” a priority for many different stakeholders — the simple presence of a high concentration of homeless people and shacks under the Tung Chau Street flyover forces the government to take relevant measures, but bureaucracy is the natural element of disconnects between different organizations and actors. From the district council and the local residents who file their complaints to the government, NGOs and charities that organize relief activities, each stakeholder contributes with helpful initiatives but at the same time risks putting in place counterproductive incentives or even reinforcing the problem. Our conclusion is that mistrust and misunderstanding among the stakeholders prevent constructive cooperation and mutual exchange of expertise and ideas. Hopefully our LabSprint will provide a potential direction to bridge this disconnect.

A third theme we outlined is that of “Housing and Urban Space”. We found that the gentrification resulting from contemporary trends of urban planning drives homeless people away from new developments, while also contributing to the inflation of rents, making it increasingly difficult for lower-income social groups to afford an accommodation. The increasing tensions between new residents and local homeless might also be connected to these changes in urban development. We also collected some data points highlighting a disconnect in the assignment of public housing: different homeless lament the complex procedures, long waiting lists and inconvenient locations that discourage them to apply for public housing and that motivate them to keep living in the streets even when they obtain it. Other disconnects emerge at the levels of public space management (with a lawsuit effectively halting the cleaning of the Tung Chau Street market area occupied by the homeless) and of temporariness (the Tung Chau Street Market itself was built to be “temporary”, but has been there for twenty years, just like the homeless settlements.

A final and extremely urgent theme we wanted to bring forward is “Health”, and it includes all sorts of -lessness involving physical and mental well-being. Some Tung Chau Street homeless with more or less severe physical disabilities lamented their difficulties in accessing health care. One Vietnamese refugee told us that his brother was HIV positive and was almost out of his medications, without any clue about how to obtain more of them. Drug use is a widespread activity among the Tung Chau Street homeless, yet we found little indications of rehabilitation programs and counseling. Whereas most of the relief efforts we observed were related to food and shelter, we feel the need to bridge the disconnect between health care and the homeless population through proactive and tailored interventions.

Finding these themes wasn’t immediate, and required some trial-and-error and small-group teamwork to avoid endless discussions and meandering debates. We feel that starting from the stories we collected and coding them all together in a large group, to then narrow down the issues into more or less coherent themes was a stimulating exercise. The next steps were less clear and more frustrating: some themes might have been too abstract or too broad, and some of the disconnects might be too wide in scope to be tackled during this LabSprint. Iterating themes from the most abstract towards the more practical might be a better strategy for the next occasion.